- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
- 0 Shares
Despite their financial and on-the-field successes, NFL owners are at a crossroads.
Their annual meeting in West Palm Beach, Fla., begins in earnest Monday with a very aggressive agenda. A forward thinker, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wants to push the envelope on some competitive things. He would like a reseeding of the playoffs to challenge lower-seeded division champs to play more starters in the final weeks. He wants to clean up spying and tampering problems that popped up over the past year.
Any proposal needs 24 of 32 owners' votes to be approved. Goodell can lobby but he does not have a vote.
From debating the length of players' hair to considering putting radio devices in defensive players' helmets, the NFL is moving forward on a lot of issues.
Where the owners are at a crossroads is how to handle the game as they face the possibility of future labor problems. In November, owners plan to break from the current collective bargaining agreement, creating an uncapped season in 2010, the last year of the current pact. That labor cloud will hang over these meetings and some of the decisions.
Here is a look ahead at the meeting, which started Sunday with committee reports:
1. Reseeding the playoffs: Traditionalists like the idea of highlighting division races. Win your division and you get a playoff home game. What concerned the commissioner over the past couple of seasons is how division winners rested players in December after clinching.
Goodell is all for having a competitive 17-week season. After reviewing Goodell's idea, the competition committee voted 5-3 in favor of a reseeding plan. The plan still would reward the top two seeds with bye weeks and second-round home games. The change would involve seeds Nos. 3-6.
Under the proposal, a wild-card team can get a home game if it has a better record than the division winners. If a tie-breaker is needed, the division winner with a same record would get the nod over the wild-card. Twice in the past three years, the Jacksonville Jaguars had a better record than some AFC division winners but had to play on the road in the playoffs. There is no doubt that this change would create more competitive games in Weeks 16 and 17.
Playoff home games are critical and coaches won't have the luxury of resting players because they will be watching the scoreboard against good wild-card teams to try to finish the seasons with better records. This might be a hard plan to pass, though. Schedule is everything in the NFL, and a wild-card team with an easy schedule will have a distinct advantage over champions in tough divisions.
Take the NFC East, for example. Four teams finished with records of 8-8 or better, and the New York Giants won the Super Bowl. Based on last year's records, all the teams in the NFC East face .520 schedules or tougher in 2008. The teams in the NFC South have comparably have easy schedules, .469 or easier. The four teams in a tough division could form a voting block to stop change.
2. Increasing the roster from 80 to 86 players: What seemed simple a year ago is now more complicated because of the potential for labor problems.
In past years, teams used NFL Europa roster exemptions to bring more than 85 players to training camp. Because it was losing $30 million a year and not developing as many players as hoped, NFL Europa folded last year. The current rules limit the number of signed players on rosters to 80.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers proposed increasing rosters to 90. Other teams have different numbers in mind and are leaving it to the meeting to continue the debate. The competition committee is pushing an idea to increase preseason rosters to a maximum of 86. Believe it or not, there is a decent block of owners who want to keep rosters at 80, thinking 80 players in enough. The committee is pitching the idea that the extra six players on a roster are necessary -- and they are -- because teams need to fill out eight-man practice squads during the fall and they need replacement players because of injuries.
Budget-minded owners are trying to save some dollars because of the crunch of the last collective bargaining extension. Here's where the owners could be pinching pennies a little too much. The worst fear in training camp is an injury. By keeping rosters at 80 with no exemptions, more veteran players will be asked to do more things during preseason games, risking them to further injury. Salaries for camp players are roughly $1,000 a week. For the savings of $6,000 a week, teams could be risking players worth $1 million or more to injury.
Currently, five teams have 70 or more players on their rosters. If owners don't change this rule and add some extra offseason roster spots, teams will be releasing players after they start signing their draft choices.
3. Allowing defensive players to wear radio devices in their helmets: Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 and the New England Patriots lost a 2008 first-round draft choice because a team videographer was caught taping the signals of defensive coaches during games. Technology comes to the rescue.
The NFL is ready to move ahead with a plan to put radio-receiving devices in the helmets of defensive players. Under the proposal, the competition committee is ready to push for a plan for teams to designate two defenders to have radio helmets, but only one will be allowed to be on the field on any given play. The number of designated helmets is a hot topic among coaches because of situation substitution and injury. Most coaches are pushing for at least three helmets to be "wired up."
After studying the topic, the committee felt more comfortable with two. What will be interesting is whether the coaches defeat this proposal because they don't feel as though they have enough defensive players wired. This is the third year the committee has tried to go ahead with speakers in defensive players' helmets, and this is the best chance for its passage.
4. Including specific field-goal attempt replays: Call this the Phil Dawson rule.
In Baltimore last season, the Cleveland Browns kicker had a last-play of regulation, game-tying field goal attempt that bounced off the upright and hit inside the crossbar. The kick initially was ruled no good, but after a lengthy discussion among officials the decision was overturned and Dawson's boot counted.
Either way, the referee didn't have the luxury of seeing a replay because field goals aren't considered a reviewable play.
Under this proposal, field goals can be reviewed on a limited basis. The new replay review would be of a kick that is no higher than top of the uprights and within the width of the goalposts.
Some owners not wishing to expand replay any further might vote this proposal down.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
5hESPN Stats & Information
1dEric D. Williams